Glory at God’s Back
A reflection offered by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, October 18, 2020, “Fearless Generosity: For Such A Time As This” series.
I like to think of myself as a person who is able to take life as it comes, a “go with the flow” kinda human. And, to a large extent, I think that is true. But, truth be told, when it comes to some things, I’m as much a control freak as anyone—mostly when it comes to things that I believe will affect the life and health of my family, my congregation, or the larger community. And, while I labor to pay attention to the more subtle and unspoken shifts and movements of things, my default is to take things and people at “face value”—to desire and to trust a direct word. With people and with God. Please don’t make me have to guess what’s going on. Just tell me! Show me!
Moses seems to be saying something like that in our story today: “Come on, God…lay your cards on the table. Show me what you’ve got for us. Show me your face. And no poker face, please. Otherwise, how will we know what to do? How will we perceive what it takes to be loving and just, to resist things that do harm? If you don’t tell us what you’re up to, if you’re not willing to show us, how will we know how to be your people?”
And here is what I hear God saying in response: “I tell you what I’ll do—I’ll set you up in a safe place and will pass by. Not gonna show you my face—because it is impossible for you to comprehend the full picture of what I’m up to in any given moment. And even if you could take it in, I wouldn’t show you. Because you have such a tendency to make idols of revelation—to make a static, dead thing—like an old photograph, a moment snapped in time that becomes what you believe life is or, in this case, who I am.
If I showed you my face in any given moment, you might freeze-frame that moment, rather than remain open to the dynamic, always new thing that I’m doing. I am that I am…I will be what I will be…and while you may not understand it, my hiddenness is part of my mercy and grace. If I show you who I am today, you will think you’ve got me figured out, that you can control me or put me in a box or contain me in a book. If I am up front with you today then you may think that the current vision is set in stone and cannot be shifted based on changes in the world. And that would lead to stagnation, exclusion, alienation. If life isn’t changing, that means it is dead. If things aren’t changing, aren’t open to receive and to give life-giving love anew each moment, then death is assured. So I’m just going to pass on by—so near that you can feel my breath flowing through you, but you will only see my back. You will perceive the after-effects of my movement in your presence. You may then perceive the direction I am moving and can choose whether to follow… //
Oof… how easy it is to make idols of revelation, to put God in a box. And the whole idea of God’s hiddenness as a grace that keeps us open and alert? …Spirit hit me between the eyes with this new word for me from this old story.
We at Foundry came into this year with momentum, with years of work and investment in ministry bearing fruit. It seemed we had glimpsed God’s direction for us that was leading to new life and vitality. 2020 was sure to be challenging, but we were as engaged as ever in the work toward full inclusion in the UMC and ready to be full participants in General Conference and the process of discerning and creating what comes next for our denomination. Years of study, prayer and preparation were finally taking concrete shape in what we now know as the Journey to Racial Justice. 5 years of investment in program ministries that strengthen connection with God and one another and help us study and serve together more regularly were bearing fruit—attracting new people, growing disciples, inspiring calls to ministry, and expanding our reach for service and justice. Investments in human resources and staff development were also paying off in ways that supported the vision and mission and that made for a healthy work environment for the team. The Board was moving into an even more intentional mode of visioning and strategic thinking. And all of this contributed to an overwhelmingly successful financial stewardship campaign in which we exceeded our goal for the 2020 budget. We. Were. On. A. Roll.
And then… COVID… and then… George Floyd…
So over these past months I have been praying that God would set me—and us—on solid rock, in a safe place and would draw near enough that we might feel the breath, the wind, the Spirit of God in real ways, in ways that might give us a sign or some direction for what to do next. I’ve been ruminating over these months on how God is at work deep within our lives and world, moving even when we can’t perceive it. Yet it took days of contemplation on our text today to begin to get shaken out of the give me more information and some semblance of certainty stupor.
At the beginning of the year when we were seeing the sprouting and growth of so many seeds planted over the years, it seems God may have decided we needed to add another row to hoe…or to engage what we’re up to a bit more slowly…or to perceive things that we’d been missing. And that feels frustrating (we were on a roll!), but it means the potential for more life, more nourishment, more growth, more health, more opportunities to cultivate and be good stewards of the vineyard we considered a couple of weeks back. It is so easy to make our plan or our vision into an idol—even if it is a Spirit-inspired plan! But in the midst of the painful pandemics of this year, the assurance is that God passes by in a way that can unveil our idolatries and lead us where we need to go.
I often get hung up on the word “glory”—which from the original Hebrew can mean abundance, honor, or glory. Moses asks God to reveal God’s “glory.” St. Irenaeus in the second century CE said that the glory of God is the human person fully alive. And, if that’s the case (as I’m persuaded it may be), then I am with Moses—“God, show us ourselves fully alive, show us communities, cities, nations, in which humans are truly human, fully alive in love and compassion and justice… Show us what that looks like and show us how to get there. God, hide yourself to keep us open and receptive and curious if that’s what it takes. Put us in the cleft of a rock alone for a while to ponder and discern what you have for us if that’s what it takes. Challenge us to expand our vision and our sense of call even when it means sacrifice if that’s what it takes.” //
If we think we’ve seen it all, then we are no longer open to the new life that will surely come. If we are holding on to an old picture of ourselves, of our congregation, or of any human reality—as if that were the whole picture, then we’re prone to lose vitality, aliveness. You and I are always called by God to grow in holiness and in love, to become more fully human, more fully alive!
And Foundry is called right now to expand our vision not only of what we do, but of who we are and how we do what we do. It’s time for us to release the fear that we will lose something if we embrace some new technology. It’s time for us to be open to the notion that we are more diverse than we might imagine and that full inclusion means grappling with messy intersections. It’s time for us to consider how God is asking us to risk discomfort for the sake of justice. It’s time for us to ponder making visual and structural and policy changes to more concretely reflect our commitments. And I’m only giving voice to a few things that have seemed to bubble up in my own prayer and discernment…it is not the whole picture and is always unfolding.
God is always out ahead of us—leading us into a future that we cannot fully perceive, but that is full of possibility and promise and freedom. God is always ahead of us, but not so far ahead that we are alone or lost. We perceive God’s “back”—or what trails behind in the wake of God’s activity and presence. And because God’s love is new every morning and because God works all day long for good, what trails behind in the wake of God is glory. It’s difficult to perceive God every day—especially when things are difficult. But every week, when our staff meets together, we begin by naming where we see God showing up. And there is always a robust list where we are seeing the activity of Spirit moving for good—showing us new things, giving inspiration, and leading us into the future.
Maya Angelou once wrote, “I believe that each of us comes from the creator trailing wisps of glory.” Imagine that… our lives—yours and mine—born and renewed in the wake of God’s passing by… And imagine the new life for Foundry—sparkling and alive through God’s unresting, unhasting, always loving presence. Imagine it… and then be surprised when it is different and better…beyond your wildest dreams.